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The folklore of Halloween

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What does Donald Duck have to do with Halloween as we know it? Bear with me and I will explain!

The origins of Halloween lie in the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an). The Celtic festivals Samhain, Imbloc, Beltane and Lughnasa are between the normal solar festivals and so known as cross quarter days.

This “in between time” on 31st October was believed to be when the veil between this world and the supernatural world was at its thinnest. Fairies and goblins could more easily roam the land as could the souls of the dead. The Celtic people viewed “in between places” as magical - doorways were neither in nor out of a house; the shoreline, neither water nor land; bogs, neither dry land or water.

In early Christian times the Church started to celebrated saints’ feast days the evening before the each anniversary of the saint or martyr. However numbers increased so much that a common day was set for them all – an All Saints’ Day. The first time we see that is in Antioch during the 4th century on the Sunday after Pentecost which is in the early summer. In the 9th century the date was moved to the 1st November to coincide with the old pagan festival. One reason for this was the power of the pagan festival at that time of year celebrated in Celtic and Germanic areas and the Church, rather than trying to stop it, was trying to take it over. Halloween is the evening before the Christian All Saints’ Day. Then in in the 11th century All Souls’ Day started to be added to the Christian calendar on 2nd November for those that were neither in Heaven or Hell but spending time in Purgatory.

Samhain traditions this time of year have endured with the pagan practices of old never done away with.

Jack O’Lantern

Many cultures have carved vegetables over time. The Irish and Scots carved turnips and placed lights in them to scare unsuspecting travellers at Halloween

The name Jack O’Lantern came from folklore based on the phenomenon of ignis fatuus (Latin) meaning foolish fire. This ignis fatuus forms over bogs and marshes and tends to retreat if approached. There is no heat from it or smoke or smell. It is less often reported now than in the past due to drainage of marshes and bogs. There are theories as to how it forms but no definite answer.  It is also known as will o’ the wisp.

In Ireland it has been associated with the story of Jack, a trickster who, after death, could find no place in Heaven. When he approached Hell the devil was fearful of his tricks and sent him away to wander the earth with a lump of coal to keep him company. Folklore held that this was the cause of the ignis fatuus, foolish fire, over the bogs. The story was printed in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1835 having been well known long before that.

According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavoury figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, simply "Jack O'Lantern".

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Turnips or Pumpkins

The Puritans who emigrated to America and landed in New England never brought such ideas with them, instead celebrating Thanksgiving in late November. This originated as a Puritan festival in the 1600s with no pagan or Roman connotations. Carved pumpkins were used as a table decoration at a traditional Thanksgiving table.

When large numbers of Irish and Scottish emigrants arrived in America in the early 1800s they brought with them their Halloween traditions including the carving of the turnip as the jack o’ lantern. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack o’lanterns.

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Trick or Treat

As well as divination and avoiding the fairy folk, it was a night of playing tricks. Neighbour’s belongings might be moved to strange places. A cart might be dis-assembled and re-assembled in the kitchen of a house when the people were out. All would be blamed on the fairies!

Earliest reports of this mischief are in a newspaper from Pennsylvania in 1801 complaining of orchards and gardens being robbed. Over time it gets worse and in the cities it becomes a night of mischief.

Ruth Kelley, an American born librarian, wrote The Book of Hallow’een in 1919. She reviews the customs of the Old World and finishes the book with a history of the occasion in America. She never uses the phrase “trick or treat”. In fact that phase first seems to be used in a published context in a newspaper in Alberta Canada in 1924.

The American Halloween had taken on many of the past practices found in Britain and Ireland.

  • In the British Isles beggars had asked for, and were given, soul cakes in return for a promise to say prayers for the dead souls of the family handing out the cakes.
  • In some regions people had disguised themselves on the night so that the fairies would not take them away. In other regions the disguises were to honour the fairies.
  • There was a fear of the malice perpetrated by fairies and this gave people an excuse to generate mischief.
  • Similarly in America people, especially the Irish and the Scots, celebrated Halloween dressing up, and always in the background there was the threat of some mischief.

The “trick or treat” phrase only appears in the USA in newspapers the 1930s in western states such as Montana and Oregon. The trick or treat phenomenon starts on the west coast of America and gradually moves east across the USA almost as a sub culture. World War Two leads to sugar shortages and the evolving idea of trick or treat seems to slow down.

After 1945 it becomes more main stream. The idea is featured on some radio programs, "The Jack Benny Show" (1948) and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (1948). Halloween vandalism was on the decline, and in 1950 a reporter in Hartford, Connecticut, ventured that it was the “quietest of Halloweens”.

It gets a wider audience in 1951 when it is presented in the Peanuts cartoon with Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Finally, in 1952, Walt Disney uses it as the film title of the latest Donald Duck movie. Donald Duck plays a trick on his nephews Hughie, Louie and Dooie instead of giving them a treat. The nephews are helped by a witch to get their own back. See, I told you I would get to Donald Duck!

The commercialization of Halloween took off. Candy companies like Curtiss and Brach wasted no time in launching their Halloween advertising campaigns. Prior to that treats were homemade.

It takes another thirty years plus until this idea comes back to the British Isles. In England especially some of the customs of Halloween had transferred to Bonfire Night to celebrate the stopping of Guy Fawkes blowing up Parliament and Halloween had been relegated to an afterthought.

Trick or treat can still be thought of as part of folklore where the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community are passed through the generations by word of mouth.

Folklore is not a fossil from former times but rather an evolving story where parts of the meanings have been lost in the past.